Dr. Andres Alonso was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of 12. Originally speaking no English, he attended public schools in Union City, New Jersey, and ultimately graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University. Dr. Alonso went on to earn a J.D. from Harvard Law School and practiced law in New York City before changing course to become an educator. In 2006 he was awarded a Doctorate in Education from Harvard University.
From 1987 to 1998, Dr. Alonso taught emotionally disturbed special education adolescents and English language learners in Newark, New Jersey. He worked at the New York City Department of Education from 2003 to 2007, first as Chief of Staff and then as Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, working closely with the Chancellor in planning and implementing the reform of the largest educational system in the nation. On July 1, 2007, Dr. Alonso was named CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools).
Among many other awards, in 2008 he was granted the “Audacious Individual Award” by the Open Society Institute Baltimore, and named “Innovator of the Year” by The Daily Record. In 2009 he was named “School Superintendent of the Year” by the Fullwood Foundation, and recognized as a “Hispanic Hero Award” winner by U.S. Hispanic Youth Entrepreneur Education. In August 2009 Dr. Alonso was appointed to the prestigious No Child Left Behind Committee for the Aspen Institute, a bipartisan effort to improve federal education policy to spur academic progress and close the achievement gap.
Question: What does it mean to say that schools must be made more “accountable?”
Andres Alonso: Well, at some level, accountable to me. As in, because if I’ve been hired to do certain things and once those things have been articulated, then I don’t have too much patience with the abstract notion. It’s, you know, ultimately everybody’s accountable to me. That’s why it’s easy to close certain schools because I’m holding them accountable. We have said, “This is what needs to happen. If it’s not happening fast enough, then there's this an accountability point that we will have to address.”
In the larger sense, the accountability is to a community and it’s very, very hard to get communities to agree on what accountability means. As in, everybody wants every kid to graduate, but when schools don’t graduate half the kids they don’t want those schools to go away. So, part of the work of leadership is to make sure that that tension is very clear to everybody. We are in an age where accountability is being defined in terms of test scores and when it’s being done well, it’s test scores that are related to growth and to gains. When it’s not being done well, it’s about absolutes that sometimes have nothing to do with the value of the work being done in a school.
I believe that quite often something very important is being missed. At the same time, I have very little patience with people who rail against tests when if it were about their own kids they would be going crazy if their kids were not able to do well on an SAT exam because that would mean that they wouldn’t be getting into the college that they could be proud about.
So, I think it’s a complex conversation, but at some level the work has been about making it simple. How are we as a system going to define what growth means? How are we going to be able to distinguish among schools so that the conversation about what is a good school changes? A good school is not a school where the middle class kids go. A good school is a school that is achieving progress for large numbers of kids. A good school is also a school that a community endorses. Not by showing up when I say the school is closing, but by having 100 parents on a back to school night in a clearly easy relationship in terms of the conversations that are taking place among kids.
So, I mean it’s - all these things enter the conversation, but there's no way to avoiding a harshness in the conversation if the work is going to be meaningful about fast change in a district that has been stagnating over time.
Recorded on January 29, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen